by Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal
"The picture that adorns the cover of the Dumas exhibition catalog is titled The Painter. It is of a naked girl...who stands up straight, facing the viewer. Her expression is of a defiant scowl, almost menacing. Her dark, deep-set, intense but indistinct eyes seem to express hatred, not of a particular object but of the world itself (inclusive of the viewer). Most of her torso is covered in light blue paint; far more disturbing, her hands, which hang by her side, are covered in paint: the right hand the color of dark, venous blood and the left hand the color of bright, arterial blood. One gets the impression that she has just come from the postmortem room or has perhaps murdered her mother. One is never too young to be a psychopath.
It is an extremely disturbing image, painted with talent. You are not likely to pass it by or to forget it. When I showed it to friends, not artistically inclined and unfamiliar with the notion of transgression as the highest good, they shuddered and said that it was sick and that it displayed a diseased imagination. Some will retort that outraged bourgeois have often reacted in this way to new art that subsequent generations took in stride and perhaps considered great. But it does not follow from the fact that a great work once caused outrage that a work that causes outrage is great. For myself, I have no difficulty in both admiring and disliking Dumas’s art.
...[I]t is not that the world has become “objectively” worse in the interval between [18th Century British painter Joshua] Reynolds and Dumas. In many respects, precisely the reverse is true, though many terrible things were done in that interval. Childhood is not less childhood than it was; children are not physically the uglier. Nor is it that we have become more intellectually sophisticated in the meantime, such that we have a better understanding of what human life is about and how it should be lived, or of the true wellsprings of human action.
...Marlene Dumas was indeed fortunate that, having attended art school in Cape Town, she was saved from the kind of provincialism now rampant in London, Paris, and New York. Her writing, collected in a volume titled Sweet Nothings (a title intended, one suspects, to ward off serious criticism), has an apodictic, take-it-or-leave-it quality: “Art is a low-risk, high-reward crime.” Or: “Now that we know that images can mean whatever, whoever wants them to mean, we don’t trust anybody anymore, especially ourselves.” This is a world without enchantment. The following words are revealing:
My generation cherishes lonelinessprizing it even above sex.They are so sensitive,they are allergic to each other.
One cannot help but suspect that there is bad faith in all this, that this is not so much how people feel as how they feel they ought to feel in order not to appear naïve.
...Dumas is guilty of a much greater evasion, caused by a fear of beauty. In a perceptive note in the catalog of her exhibition, by the critic Wendy Simon, we learn of this fear. Simon draws attention to “the extreme ambivalence we now feel towards beauty both within and outside art,” and continues: “We distrust it; we fear its power; we associate it with compulsion and uncontrollable desire of a sexual fetish. Embarrassed by our yearning for beauty, we demean it as something tawdry, self-indulgent, or sentimental.”
All that is necessary for ugliness to prosper is for artists to reject beauty.
Lenin abjured music, to which he was sensitive, because it made him feel well-disposed to the people around him, and he thought it would be necessary to kill so many of them. Theodor Adorno said that there could be no more poetry after Auschwitz. Our view of the world has become so politicized that we think that the unembarrassed celebration of beauty is a sign of insensibility to suffering and that exclusively to focus on the world’s deformations, its horrors, is in itself a sign of compassion."